Taj Mahal celebrated his 70th birthday onstage Wednesday at Knuckleheads in front of an enthusiastic crowd that packed the patio and upper decks, and filled about half of the inside area.
Even KC mayor Sly James and his crew found their way into the Bottoms to catch the show, drink some beer, and eat a bunch of fried food. Now there’s a platform I can really get behind.
As Taj took the stage he was presented with a huge guitar-shaped cake and serenaded with a spirited rendition of happy birthday. The storied bluesman seemed to appreciate the gesture, but didn’t say much and quickly launched into the opener, an instrumental jam that displayed his trademark tremolo-soaked, syncopated guitar picking.
He’s still got it, I thought to myself, even at 70.
My thought was definitely affirmed during the second song, as Taj unleashed his expressive vocals that never waned even on the long sustained notes. His two piece backing band settled in nicely behind him, creating a balanced sound that was clear from pretty much everywhere in the venue.
Indeed, Taj’s voice sounded as strong as ever throughout the show. He went from gruff growl, to smooth baritone, to a weird little croak in the back of his throat with what seemed like no effort. He even hit a few falsettos in there right on cue.
But the big daddy voice is just but one part of his persona. Throughout the night it was clear that Taj’s age hasn’t lessened his fixation on the fairer sex, on their big legs and butts, and on the unabashed dirty talk. In one aside during his third song he mentioned putting “WD-40 on your bed springs.”
And he even demonstrated his motor-boating technique several times for the mostly older (50s and 60s), mostly white crowd. He made crazy horndog faces and winked at the ladies, who seemed to blush a bit, but also seemed to relish in the naughtiness.
“You know what keeps you young?” he asked before launching into one of his classics, Corinna. “Hanging around young ideas. Be adventurous in your intimacy!”
But it wasn’t all pillow talk. The big man showed his versatility as he switched over to the keys for Blues With a Feelin’, a slower tune that fell a little flat and signaled a mass bathroom break. And he picked up the banjo for a tune or two as well.
All as he mesmerized the crowd with that sloppy, plucking, perfect guitar style on some of his fans’ favorites like Fishin’ Blues, Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes, and Queen Bee. Of particular note was a short, sweet, mellow instrumental that Taj called Waiting for my Papa to Come Home. All night long, the backing band of Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on the drums was solid, but nothing more.
Not that they need to be when you’ve got such a huge personality like Taj onstage to soak up the spotlight and lead the party home.
"Are you guys having fun?" he bellowed towards the end of the show. The audience screamed. "Well, let’s have some more fun!"